Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Tartar Invasion of Japan

In all its history only one serious effort has been made to conquer the empire of Japan. It ended in such dire disaster to the invaders that no nation has ever repeated it. During the thirteenth century Asia was thrown into turmoil by the dreadful outbreak of the Mongol Tartars under the great conqueror Genghis Khan. Nearly all Asia was overrun, Russia was subdued, China was conquered, and envoys were sent to Japan demanding tribute and homage to the great khan.

Six times the demand was made, and six times refused. Then an army of ten thousand men was sent to Japan, but was soon driven from the country in defeat. Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor of China, now sent nine envoys to the shogun, bidding them to stay until they received an answer to his demand. They stayed much longer than he intended, for the Hojo, who were then in power, cut off their heads. Once again the Chinese emperor sent to demand tribute, and once again the heads of the envoys were severed from their bodies.

Acts like these could have only one result, and the Japanese made rapid preparations to meet the great power which had conquered Asia. A large army was levied, forts and defences were put in order, stores gathered in great quantities, and weapons and munitions of war abundantly prepared. A fleet of junks was built, and all the resources of the empire were employed. Japan, though it had waged no wars abroad, had amply learned the art of war from its frequent hostilities at home, and was well provided with brave soldiers and skilful generals. The khan was not likely to find its conquest an easy task.

While the islanders were thus busy, their foes were as actively engaged. The proud emperor had made up his mind to crush this little realm that so insolently defied his power. A great fleet was made ready, containing thirty-five hundred vessels in all, in which embarked an army of one hundred thousand Chinese and Tartars and seven thousand Corean troops. It was the seventh month of the year 1281 when the expectant sentinels of Japan caught the glint of the sun's rays on the far-off throng of sails, which whitened the seas as they came on with streaming banners and the warlike clang of brass and steel.

The army of Japan, which lay encamped on the hills back of the fortified city of Daizaifu, in the island of Kiushiu, and gathered in ranks along the adjoining coast, gazed with curiosity and dread on this mighty fleet, far the largest they had ever seen. Many of the vessels were of enormous size, as it seemed to their unaccustomed eyes, and were armed with engines of war such as they had never before beheld. The light boats of the Japanese had little hope of success against these huge junks, and many of those that ventured from shelter were sunk by the darts and stones flung from the Mongol catapults. The enemy could not be matched upon the sea; it remained to prevent him from setting foot upon shore.

Yet the courage and daring of the island warriors could not be restrained. A party of thirty swam out and boarded a junk, where their keen-edged swords proved more than a match for the Tartar bows and spears, so that they returned with the heads of the crew. A second party tried to repeat a like adventure, but the Tartars were now on the alert and killed them all. One captain, with a picked crew, steered out in broad daylight to a Chinese junk, heedless of a shower of darts, one of which took off his arm. In a minute more he and his men were on the deck and were driving back the crew in a fierce hand-to-hand encounter. Before other vessels of the fleet could come up, they had fired the captured junk and were off again, bearing with them twenty-one heads of the foe.

To prevent such attacks all advanced boats were withdrawn and the fleet was linked together with iron chains, while with catapults and great bows heavy darts and stones were showered on approaching Japanese boats, sinking many of them and destroying their crews. But all efforts of the Tartars to land were bravely repulsed, and such detachments as reached the shore were driven into the sea before they could prepare for defence, over two thousand of the enemy falling in these preliminary attempts. With the utmost haste a long line of fortifications, consisting of earthworks and palisades, had been thrown up for miles along the shore, and behind these defences the island soldiers defied their foes.

Among the defenders was a captain, Michiari by name, whose hatred of the Mongols led him to a deed of the most desperate daring. Springing over the breastworks, he defied the barbarians to mortal combat. Then, filling two boats with others as daring as himself, he pushed out to the fleet.

Both sides looked on in amazement. "Is the man mad?" said the Japanese. "Are those two little boats coming to attack our whole fleet?" asked the Mongols. "They must be deserters, who are coming to surrender."

Under this supposition the boats were permitted to approach unharmed, their course being directed towards a large Tartar junk. A near approach being thus made, grappling-irons were flung out, and in a minute more the daring assailants were leaping on board the junk.

Taken by surprise, the Tartars were driven back, the two-handed keen-edged swords of the assailants making havoc in their ranks. The crew made what defence they could, but the sudden and unlooked-for assault had put them at disadvantage, and before the adjoining ships could come to their aid the junk was in flames and the boats of the victors had put off for land. With them as prisoner they carried one of the highest officers in the invading fleet.

Yet these skirmishes did little in reducing the strength of the foe, and had not the elements come to the aid of Japan the issue of the affair might have been serious for the island empire. While the soldiers were fighting the priests were praying, and the mikado sent a priestly messenger to the shrines at Isť, bearing his petition to the gods. It was noon-day, and the sky perfectly clear, when he offered the prayer, but immediately afterwards a broad streak of cloud rose on the horizon, and soon the sky was overcast with dense and rolling masses, portending a frightful storm.

It was one of the typhoons that annually visit that coast and against whose appalling fury none but the strongest ships can stand. It fell with all its force on the Chinese fleet, lifting the junks like straws on the great waves which suddenly arose, tossing them together, hurling some upon the shore, and forcing others bodily beneath the sea. Hundreds of the light craft were sunk, and corpses were heaped on the shore in multitudes. Many of the vessels were driven to sea, few or none of which ever reached land. Many others were wrecked upon Taka Island. Here the survivors, after the storm subsided, began cutting down trees and building boats, in the hope of reaching Corea. But they were attacked by the Japanese with such fury that all were slain but three, whose lives were spared that they might bear back the news to their emperor and tell him how the gods had fought for Japan.

The lesson was an effective one. The Chinese have never since attempted the conquest of Japan, and it is the boast of the people of that country that no invading army has ever set foot upon their shores. Six centuries afterwards the case was to be reversed and a Japanese army to land on Chinese soil.

Great praise was given to the Hojo then in control at Kamakura for his energy and valor in repelling the invaders. But the chief honor was paid to the gods enshrined at Isť, who were thenceforward adored as the guardians of the winds and the seas. To this day the invasion of the Mongols is vividly remembered in Kiushiu, and the mother there hushes her fretful babe with the question, "Little one, why do you cry? Do you think the Mogu are corning?"

It may be well here to say that the story of this invasion is told by Marco Polo, who was at the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol conqueror of China, at the time it took place, and that his tale differs in many respects from that of the Japanese historians. Each party is apparently making the best of its side of the affair.

According to Marco Polo's account, the failure of the expedition was due to jealousy between the two officers in command. He states that one Japanese fortification was taken and all within put to the sword, except two, whose flesh was charmed against the sword and who could be killed only by being beaten to death with great clubs. As for those who reached Taka Island, they contrived by strategy to gain possession of the boats of the assailing Japanese, by whose aid, and that of the flags which the boats flew, they captured the chief city of Japan. Here for six months they were closely besieged, and finally surrendered on condition that their lives should be spared.